Review ‘Em All: Baroness, Purple

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Like Pearl Jam and grunge, Red Hot Chili Peppers and funk, or pints and £3, I no longer expect Baroness to be metal in this post–Yellow & Green age. I’m fine with this now, it just took me a while to appreciate them as a rock band, and to stop hoping that they return to writing material like First, Second and Red Album.

Purple, the debut release on Baroness’  record label, Abraxan Hymns, starts off heavy with Morningstar, the intro full of changing drum patterns and weaving guitar licks that threaten to go country. Vocals enter at 0.45, and I’m not 100% on John Dyer Baizley’s now all–clean singing, even if it’s a given that his roaring days are over. The lyrics are abstract and come in poetic bursts;

Far beyond the horizons
there’s master in martyr’s disguise
pale as a morningstar strung
to the sky

and

the hatchet–man dusting off his sleeve
spil’t my blood and drank my dreams
and stopped the spinning wheels (Desperation Burns)

At 2.45 into Morningstar is the first of Purple’s many harmonised guitar solos, featuring that fuzzy guitar tone that first appeared on Blue Record’s opening track Bullhead’s Psalm and Little Thing and continued through Yellow & Green, and is by now a signature of Baizley and Pete Adams’ playing. Shock Me enters with a soft synth intro (played by bass guitarist Nick Jost) which I like, but again I’m not convinced by the vocals when they enter at 0.45. Drummer Sebastian Thomson, who is playing on his first Baroness album, plays lots of rolling lines on the toms, and a very cool break at 2.35. A thumping rhythm section and chiming guitars combine to drive Try To Disappear, with a heavy break at 1.12 bringing the song back into gear through some excellent drumming, leading into a writhing riff at 2.25 and even more great drumming during the solo.

The intro to Kerosene, partially thanks to an excellent drum fill and mixing, reminded me a bit like Leviathan–era Mastodon, and there is a great solo and accompanying rhythm section work at 2.10. However, once again I am not convinced by the vocals, and at 1.23 and at 3.00 the low–mids are cut out of the vocals for a short passage, which I am not a fan of. If I wanted to hear the Kaiser Chiefs (which I don’t) then I would listen to Radio X.

Although at first I thought the intro to Fugue was a bit Ultimate Chill Out, I quickly came to  enjoy its weightless, floating atmosphere, with the bass line anchoring the splashing guitars. It flows into Chlorine & Wine’s catchy chord progression, with awesome tom work at 2.10 and a Pink Floyd–range of guitar tones at 4.40. The gang singing at 5.20 captures the anthemic qualities that Baroness seem to be aiming for, and in this instance they succeed wonderfully. Once again, Thomson is all over the toms, and it adds to this rousing end chorus, which is the song most explicitly about Baroness’ recovery from their bus crash in 2012;

When I called on my nursemaid
come sit by my side
but she cuts through my ribcage
and pushes the pill deep in my eyes

and

please don’t lay me down
under the rocks where I found
my place in the ground

By the straightforward and driving quavers of The Iron Bell it’s clear that Baroness’ wild and weaving riffs are by now largely gone, which I feel is a shame. It strikes me that I knew this before hearing Purple; I heard Chlorine & Wine when it was released in August, and although I thought the end chorus was great, it was also a good hint that Purple was never going to be heavy, and that Baroness are continuing to evolve away from the origin of their heavy–lifting species. I am holding on, if only partially, to what Baroness used to be, and it strikes me that’s what I really want to hear, and what keeps drawing me in. What I said about no longer expecting Baroness to be metal, and being fine with it, well, that’s not true. Listening to this album I couldn’t help to compare it to their older material, and whilst I know that Baroness no longer make that kind of music because it doesn’t interest them (Baizley has said as much), that is still what I’d love to hear.  I’ve thought it over, read about it, tried to analyse and intellectualise it, but it boils down to me preferring Baroness when they were heavier.

That all said, there are still moments I really like, such as what can be best described as the ‘squeezy’ guitar solo at 2.50 of Iron Bell, the sudden swaying, lurching  riff and hefty bass tone 2.47 in Desperation Burns and in particular If I Have To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?). This is my favourite track, with its doomy vibe and ominous bell paired with

Kill the light!
There’s something wrong with today

It’s a strong close to the album, ignoring the next track Crossroads of Infinity, which consists of 16 seconds of burbling.

Knowing that this album was written during and may well be part of Baroness’ rehabilitation from their crash, and that consequently it must have an even stronger personal connection than that between most artists and their music (which usually is already a rebar–strong connection) I feel bad for criticising it. However, Baroness have moved away from what first attracted me to them, and whilst there are elements I like (the drumming is definitely my favourite part of Purple), there are also those which I don’t think I will ever really will.

On an added note, I had a similar initial reaction to Yellow & Green, and still have mixed feelings about it, but when I saw Baroness perform those songs live the added heft and grit really helped them. I think I’ll go see them again when they play London this March, but I won’t be spinning Purple up until then.